Why Is My Daughter Starving Herself?

My 15 year old daughter refuses to eat and is literally wasting away in front of me. I’ve tried everything: lectures, threats, pleading, bribing. I’ve even admitted her to the eating disorder unit at the local hospital multiple times to combat her dehydration and malnutrition. I feel like a complete failure as a mother. How did this happen? Every time I get her patched up at a hospital, she goes right back to starving herself. Help?

It is truly hellish to watch your own child self-destruct and you certainly have my sympathy for what you’re going through. The first thing to understand in this kind of situation is that it’s actually not about the food. This kind of starvation is a strategic attempt to resolve an extreme internal crisis which your daughter may or may not be able to articulate at this time. While medical intervention is needed to deal with the physical danger, hospitals are not equipped to address the root causes of this kind of problem. You need to get your daughter some one-on-one psychological counseling, preferably from someone with experience in dealing with eating disorders and/or trauma. But before you start looking up people and prices, let me explain some important principles that will help you gain a better understanding of what’s happening here.

In all cases of self-abuse, the body is being pressured to self-harm by either the mind, the soul, or both. The human body is programmed with two priorities: to feel good and stay safe. The body is never a fan of self-harming, but it can be pressured into it by the mind or soul, both of which it considers to be dominant over it. In all cases of self-harming, the controlling element (mind or soul) is extremely upset about a perceived problem. Food only gets involved when the controlling element forms a symbolic association between whatever it’s stressed about and the process of eating.

Suppose your friend with fragile self-esteem enrolls in a cooking course. Her big dream is to become a professional chef and one night she cooks you a meal that looks quite unappetizing. Without anyone saying anything, you both automatically understand that your friend is going to attach all kinds of extra meanings to how you react to her food. If you are honest about how much you dislike it, she’ll hear that as a statement that you don’t think she has the chops to make it as a chef because she’s an incompetent loser. In this situation, that innocent pile of food has been turned into a symbol of your faith in your friend’s abilities as well as a statement on how much you support her as a friend. It’s to protect your friend’s feelings that you make yourself eat the food with a smile on your face–not because you enjoy it, but because you care about the non-food related issues that you know she has mentally linked to your plate.

All humans form symbolic attachments to the food they eat, as well as to the process of eating, and those attachments change the way they perceive what they eat. Pasta was Joe’s favorite food until the day that his wife announced she was having an affair in the middle of him eating spaghetti. Now Joe can’t eat pasta without gagging. His traumatic experience has caused his mind to alter the way his body reacts to the food. When Joe is around pasta, his mind recalls the devastating memory of his wife announcing she was leaving him. It is his mind that panics at the sight of pasta, and his body then reacts with distress when it senses that his mind is so upset. It is because his mind now sees pasta as a threat that Joe’s body tries to physically prevent pasta from entering his stomach, which results in the gagging reflex. It’s as if the mind screams “Get that pasta away from us!” and the body rushes to comply by causing Joe’s throat muscles to spasm. Because the physical body depends on the mind to help it function, it is willing to inflict misery on itself to keep the mind happy. Just as a small child when she sees the parent she depends in serious distress, the body panics when it senses that its own protector (the mind) is in some kind of crisis. The body knows that it can’t survive without the help of the mind, which is why it is so quick to cave in to the mind’s demands, even when those demands are terrifying or painful.

Now the dynamic I just described can make the mind sound rather abusive. It’s vital to understand that the mind is extremely protective over the body, and even when it is putting the body in harm’s way, it’s motivations are actually positive. When I refer to the mind in this article, I am specifically talking about the subconscious part of the mind. Your mind has two elements to it: subconscious and conscious. While the conscious is a very fragile, limited element, the subconscious is incredibly tough and capable. When it comes to taking care of your overall being, the subconscious is always focused on the “big picture” and trying to anticipate the future consequences of its choices. Because it understands the vital role it plays in keeping your whole system on track, the subconscious prioritizes its own well-being above that of your soul, conscious and body. If sacrificing physical health will help the subconscious keeps its own stress load manageable, it will see this as a reasonable and sometimes necessary step to take. Because your subconscious plays such an essential role in maintaining your physical health, it can help your body recover from a lot of damage. So from its perspective, it’s taking a reasonable gamble: damage the body today to keep the mind intact, and hope that whatever damage occurs can be reversed once the mind gets through its current crisis. It’s when the mind’s crisis drags on and on that this plan begins to fail, because the body has a limit on how much damage it can sustain before it will crash. This is the dilemma your daughter is currently in, and it’s why getting your daughter psychological help as soon as possible is so important. Her mind needs help identifying a better solution to its current problem. Right now it’s just trying to put patches on things by pressuring the body not to eat. Once the mind starts feeling less stressed, it will ease up on the body and your daughter will start feeling less threatened by eating food.

Now it’s important to understand that your daughter’s aversion to food could be triggered by many different things. While it’s easy to leap to the assumption that she is worried about becoming “fat”, size might have nothing to do with her issue. Eating is a process with many aspects to it. There is the physical experience of inserting food into your mouth, there is the appearance and smell of the food put in front of you, and there is the environment you are eating in (who is with you, where you are located, and the general mood). There is also the position your body is in while eating (sitting, lying down, etc.), there are specific tools involved to help you eat (utensils, plates, etc.), and there is the time of day. Caloric intake and weight gain are just two of many possible factors that your daughter could be feeling threatened by. The same behaviors (not eating) can be driven by a wide variety of logical arguments, and people are often quite surprised to find out what the actual rationale is behind their loved ones’ negative behaviors. To get to the real issue that your daughter is dealing with, it’s important that she get help from a counselor who understands how complex these issues can be.

Your soul and mind each have their own list of core needs. When those needs go unmet for too long, the affected element starts feeling desperate and comes up with what it feels is a logical strategy for resolving the crisis. In cases of soul-driven self-harming, the underlying crisis is often focused on a moral issue, such as believing you’ve committed an unpardonable sin. The soul often sees self-harming as a way to make up for some kind of “crime”, such as the girl who blames herself for her parents’ divorce and then tries to alleviate her moral guilt by physically abusing herself. If your daughter is dealing with a soul trauma here, then she could be trying to punish herself by withholding what she knows are essential nutrients from her body. In such a case, your daughter would need help adjusting her soul beliefs so that she can see her perceived “crime” in a more fair, compassionate light.

Human souls are notorious for being vicious, condemning judges who inflict endless punishments on the mind and body. If your daughter believes in God and she is dealing with a soul trauma, then she will likely need help correcting her beliefs about how Divine judgment works. But if instead she’s dealing with a psychological trauma, her beliefs about God will probably have nothing to do with it. The point I’m making here is that spiritual traumas require a different approach than psychological traumas. Once your daughter’s root issue is identified, you’ll be in a better position to identify someone who can help her in the longterm. Many counselors are not equipped to handle spiritual traumas well, but they could be very helpful with psychological issues. The reverse is also true: religious counselors tend to try to make everything into a spiritual issue and they can be very unhelpful in dealing with psychological issues. Then there are counselors like me, who straddle both camps, but we tend to be in the minority. Depending on how this plays out, be open to the possibility of changing your daughter to a different kind of counselor at some point in her recovery process.

Now when self-harming is a result of psychological trauma, there is a much broader range of potential causes than in cases of spiritual trauma. The mind doesn’t care about morals, but it has a desperate need to feel reasonably safe in the world. For children who go through traumatic assault or bullying experiences, that critical sense of safety can be shattered and replaced by an ongoing terror that they are doomed to live a life of constant torment. In such cases, a desperate mind could push for self-harming as a means to 1) increase its tolerance for misery, or 2) try to draw the attention of local protectors by creating physical evidence of how desperate it feels. But again, this is just one of many possible examples. Another common cause of starvation in teen girls is a belief that their physical appearance is causing them to be rejected by their parents and/or peers. Once a girl internalizes the belief that “I am ugly” or “I’m a fat cow”, her mind can cause her to actually see a false image when she looks at her own reflection in a mirror.

This is because the data we collect with our senses (ears, eyes, nose, etc.) is always being modified and interpreted by our subconscious. This is why you can see a white blob in your peripheral vision and assume you saw a bunny, when what you actually saw was a plastic bag. What your mind expects you to see and what it currently believes to be true strongly influence how it interprets the images that your eyes collect. When you see a dark blob on your carpet, you might instantly assume it’s a poisonous spider and panic before you take a closer look and realize that it’s just lint. When your friend who has a history of making snarky comments says something about your outfit, you could easily hear an insulting tone in her voice when no such tone existed. Understanding the mind’s powerful influence over how we interpret reality helps take the mystery out of why anorexics and other self-starvers will often describe an image of themselves that is so different than what everyone else sees. And of course once the mind starts feeding us false data, we naturally assume that everyone else is lying to us when they insist that we look like skeletons.

Trying to make your daughter see her physical condition as you do is not going to be a productive approach. If she’s dealing with severe soul guilt, she could easily have an attitude of “my misery still isn’t bad enough” which will cause her to ignore your panic over her failing health. If her mind is producing a false picture of her body to her, then she is naturally going to trust her own senses over anything you say. In such a case, trying to get her to understand how untrustworthy her own mind is will only cause her stress to spike, which is going to make everything worse. Nothing is more scary to a human than to realize they can’t trust their own senses. In this kind of situation, it’s much more productive to try to identify the epic crisis that your daughter is trying to manage by not eating. Whatever it is, it isn’t going to be about food, but rather some important psychological or spiritual concept that she has linked to food.

Now once the mind or soul locks onto self-starving as an essential stress management tool, anyone who tries to take that tool away often gets labeled as a threat. This is why it’s not likely that your daughter will open up to you about what’s really bothering her, because by now she probably sees you as someone who “just doesn’t understand” and keeps trying to upset her more by shoving food on her. Severe trauma cases often feel that it is only possible to open up to a complete stranger who has no prior history with them. While it’s certainly possible that your daughter’s trauma could be rooted in something you have said or done, you shouldn’t leap to this conclusion. It is just as possible that you have nothing to do with the root issue that is stressing her. Even if her mind or soul is perceiving you as some kind of antagonist, you shouldn’t start beating yourself up over this. Humans can’t control how others perceive them, and many well-meaning behaviors end up being perceived as threats. As a parent, you have a moral responsibility to try to help your daughter, but all you can do is try to provide her with the tools she needs to start the process of recovery. You can’t force her to cooperate with a counselor, and you can’t force her to choose to do the work of healing.

At this point, what I would recommend is that you find a counselor who specializes in trauma and/or eating disorders. Since your daughter is a minor and not an adult, it is appropriate for you to force her to at least attend the appointment. If she doesn’t want to talk, fine, but she will probably need a strong push to at least get in the proximity of a counselor. To give the appointment the best chance of succeeding, you should let your daughter talk to the counselor in private, not sit in. I would also recommend giving your daughter the option of choosing whether the counselor is male or female, since there might be a gender issue woven into this trauma. What I mean by that is that sometimes this type of condition is a response to some kind of past assault, such as bullying at school. If that is the case, having a counselor who is the same gender as the original assaulter can create a threatening environment. Since you don’t know what’s going on here, give your daughter the option to choose a gender. You can say something like, “I’m taking you to see a counselor who can help you with this better than I can. It will just be a conversation, no eating. Do you want to see a man or a woman?” Some counselors will work with your daughter over the phone or through video chat. If that’s what you end up doing, make sure your daughter knows you are not within hearing range while the counseling session takes place. Giving her the chance to be alone with a neutral party will give her the best chance of feeling safe enough to open up about what she’s really stressing about.

Severe trauma cases like this require a gentle, patient approach. This kind of crisis usually takes a lot of time to resolve. If your daughter starts recovering and begins showing some interest in food, I’d strongly recommend that you give her free rein to decide when and what she eats. Because there are so many possibly triggers here, you run the risk of setting her back if you start pressuring her to eat certain types of food at certain times. While you’ll naturally want her to eat as nutritiously as possible right from the start, her mind might direct her to “junk food” options first. If this happens, don’t panic. The mind is far more intelligent than people realize, and it will want to get your daughter’s body back to full health as quickly as possible. But often in these cases, the mind will introduce nutrients in a very strategic order, calling for the same foods over and over before switching to other foods. If your daughter starts showing an interest in chips or cookies, don’t argue with her, just make a supply available to her that she can access whenever she wants. If she starts wanting to eat a ton of ice cream and only ice cream for days on end, don’t make a fuss. At this point, any kind of voluntary food consumption will be a sign of positive progress. The calmer you react to her food choices, the less threatened she’ll feel.

Traumatized minds and souls tend to see life from a very dark and warped perspective. If counseling goes well and your daughter tries to share some of her thoughts with you, the best thing you can do is react to whatever she says with compassion. This becomes very difficult to do when your child suddenly divulges that they have been viewing you like some kind of monster for years on end while you had no idea. In such a situation, it’s vital to remember that you can’t control how your daughter interprets her life experiences. Her reactions to her life are as valid as yours. What she needs from you is understanding, and understanding does not require agreement. If it turns out that your daughter is reacting to something about you that she feels very threatened by, it’s important that you listen and try to at least follow along with her logic for the sake of understanding how she got from A to B. If you feel there are reasonable steps you could take to improve how you relate to her, then great. But if you feel that you haven’t done anything wrong and that your daughter’s negative perception of you is not based on reality, that’s fine as well. It is not the goal to let your daughter control your behavior or choices. The goal is to listen and understand so that you can identify what your best options are for maintaining a positive relationship with her. In life, we can’t have everything we want in our relationships with other people, but we can often have some of what we want if we are willing to be realistic and work around the other person’s needs and issues.

This post was written in response to Jenny K.

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